STEVIE WONDER — Fulfillingness' First Finale (review)

STEVIE WONDER — Fulfillingness' First Finale album cover Album · 1974 · RnB Buy this album from MMA partners
4.5/5 ·
In mid 1973 while we music lovers were still in the early stages of trying to wrap our heads around the stupendous masterpiece that was “Innervisions” we suddenly got the terrifying news that its gifted creator had sustained life-threatening injuries in an automobile accident. It’s my belief that the millions of thoughts and prayers for his recovery streaming heavenward made a big difference because, despite his being in a coma for 4 days and then enduring weeks of rehabilitation, less than a year later he stunned the planet again with another astounding album of songs that shot straight up to #1, “Fulfillingness’ First Finale.” His fans were willing to accept that, considering his near-death experience, it might not be as incredible as his previous LP was but upon hearing it we realized that our worries were groundless. He hadn’t lost a step or a note. He was still a superman, able to not only leap tall buildings at a single bound but continue to touch us with his music on a deep, profound level that very few artists have ever been able to do. I’ll concede that, due to Stevie’s spoiling us with the genius he so readily displayed on his first three “official” solo discs, this record didn’t knock us to the floor in abject shock and awe as before but that doesn’t in any way diminish the instant admiration we had for the quality of its contents. Wonder had wowed us all again.

He opens with “Smile Please,” a jazzy ballad wherein a flowing groove has been installed with ample help from Reggie McBride on bass, Michael Sembello on guitar and Bobbye Hall on percussion. Stevie’s placing emphasis on the backup singing pays off with mesmerizing results and makes us aware that his skill as a vocal arranger is yet another aspect of his immense talent we need to take note of. His positive words reassured us that he was better than okay. “Love’s not competing, it’s on your side/you’re in life’s picture so why must you cry?/so for a friend please begin to smile, please/there’re brighter days ahead,” he gently sings. On “Heaven is 10 Zillion Light Years Away” his ability to create an ensemble-like feel all by himself still astounds me to this day. Wonder’s affection for jazz is apparent in the song’s chord progression and once again the background chorale adds excitement as Stevie injects his own unique incidental exhortations along the way. The car wreck understandably affected him spiritually and his lyrics acknowledging the unfathomable vastness of the universe while affirming the miracle that God can live within us if we’ll only believe in His overwhelming desire to do so are beautiful. “Too Shy to Say” is next and it’s a slow ballad with an unexpected pedal steel guitar involved. Thank goodness Sneaky Pete doesn’t attempt to make it sound country. In fact, he augments the tune’s elemental acoustic piano foundation, weaving in and out of the production like silk threads in a rich fabric. This ode to unrequited love is gorgeous.

Rude, ripping synthesizer spasms herald the advent of “Boogie On Reggae Woman,” a Caribbean-flavored number that benefits greatly from receiving the lively Wonder treatment, preventing it from being typecast in a confining role. The song was a #3 hit single due in no small part to Stevie’s playful harmonica, his delightful piano licks and his steady-as-ever drumming. Kinda hard to stay in a foul mood with lines like “I’d like to see both of us/fall deeply in love/I’d like to see you in the raw/under the stars above/yes, I would!” assaulting your psyche. Muted synths give “Creepin’” a smoky atmosphere that envelops you completely. It is a fine specimen of jazz-tinted R&B at its very best. He and guest Minnie Riperton fill the sonic plane with tight harmonies and thick-layered chorales. By now it’s obvious that Wonder is a master of synthesizers because they sound so natural. It’s also apparent that Stevie had now put his fame and fortune in their proper perspective. He had all-powerful LOVE on his mind and he didn’t mind telling us about it. The chart-topping “You Haven’t Done Nothin’” follows with its memorably cool, cascading keyboard intro. Wonder employs a drum machine for this one but it sounds anything but plastic as the tune’s booming, loping rhythm is insanely infectious. Nobody equals Stevie in making a clavinet get its funk on (as it does here), the uncredited horn section adds sharp, brassy bites to the track and bringing in the Jackson 5 to do the backup vocal honors was an inspired move. This album is less political than its predecessor but Wonder doesn’t pass up the opportunity to let the hapless Dick Nixon have it. “It’s not too cool to be ridiculed/but you brought this upon yourself/the world is sick of pacifiers/we want the truth and nothing else,” he sings.

“It Ain’t No Use” is another excellent jazz-infused ballad where his extraordinary voice will nail you to the nearest wall. This is undoubtedly one of his most overlooked songs. The words about facing the inevitable end of a relationship strike a tender nerve in me every time. “We still are young and both of us have time/to find our winter love in spring/yes, we know the truth/it ain’t no use/we’re not each other’s everything,” he admits. The most arresting cut is next, the melancholy “They Won’t Go When I Go.” The unusually somber aura surrounding this extremely personal tune is set up by Stevie’s mournful piano lead-in and sustained by the song’s meticulous but fascinating construction. His soulful, heartfelt vocal performance transports you to another, more glorious world where the first shall be last. “Big men feeling small/weak ones standing tall/I will watch them fall/’cause they won’t go when I go,” he cries. He makes a powerful statement worth pondering. The uplifting, Latin rhythms of “Bird of Beauty” brighten the room and Wonder shows that in the drumming department he isn’t afraid to take on any style. The track’s jazzy arrangement engages all five senses as he reminds us to stop and smell the roses. “There is so much in life for you to feel/unfound in white, red or yellow pills/a mind excursion can be such a thrill/take a chance and ride/the bird of beauty in the sky,” he urges. He ends with "Please Don't Go," a slice of perky R&B containing punchy accents and a traditional contemporary jazz chorale swaying behind his exquisite voice. A voice that seemingly knows no limit to expression. He’s a joy to listen to. I love the song’s ever-changing arrangement and the exuberant final segment is absolutely grin-inducing. He speaks for all his fans on this one in light of the scare he put in us a year earlier when he warbles gleefully “please don’t go/no, no, no/if you go/I’ll be sad and blue/so I say/no, no, no/don’t go away.” Glad you stuck around, Stevie.

I feel somewhat shallow in saying it’s a masterpiece but not as much of a masterpiece as the masterpiece that came right before it but there it is. It really comes down to individual taste in comparing aural art of this magnitude and it’s not dissimilar to ranking two sparkling diamonds. As did “Innervisions” twelve months earlier “Fulfillingness’ First Finale” took the coveted Album of the Year trophy at the Grammys, the equivalent of being awarded back-to-back Superbowl rings. The bottom line is that Stevie’s music was an important part of the soundtrack that accompanied me through the prime years of my life as a young adult. I could relate to his songs in that when I felt pain, he sang about what I was going through. When I was in a happy frame of mind, he had a tune to match that, too. This album is worthy of every accolade it receives and I can’t find a single thing to criticize. In the 70s Stevie Wonder had the Midas touch and this was no exception. Every one of these ten tracks will forever shine like golden sunlight.
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